Corona and the Climate: 5 Lessons We Can Learn

Source: Wikimedia

Virus pandemic, global heating, species extinction. We are in the midst of several global crises. All of them cost lives. All demand quick answers. What follows is an attempt to learn from their comparison. Victims, however, are beyond comparison.

1. If we want, we can.

Companies switch to home office. Car producers stop their production. Factories close. Air traffic is restricted. Governments – even Trump – declare  a state of emergency. The whole world applies the emergency brake. What climate scientists, activists and NGOs have been fighting for over decades suddenly becomes possible within a matter of days, if not hours. If we want, we can intervene – radically – to flatten the Corona curve. Our global CO2 emissions curve, in contrast, remains anything but flat. CO2 emissions have increased by around 60% since the 1990s. Despite the Paris climate agreement, this trend continues. Compared with this, our collective response to Corona is significantly more determined. The question thus arises: Do we really want to tackle global heating, or have we just pretended so far?

2. We are not really taking the climate crisis seriously.

Millions of people and animals are dying – already – from extreme weather, forest fires, droughts, crop failures and other consequences of global heating, pollution and resource exploitation. The WHO estimates that air pollution alone kills 7 million people each year. Plant and animal species are going extinct at rates unprecedented in human history – and nothing can bring them back. Currently, strict regulations to counteract these problems are usually dismissed as intolerable interferences with individual and market freedoms. In contrast, rules and restrictions to counteract Corona tend to be welcomed. At times, it seems as if countries were competing over who implements the strictest, most consistent crisis measures to protect their citizens. This works because Corona is taken seriously as a crisis. Environmental problems, in contrast, are often referred to as crises, but they are not treated as such – notwithstanding the fact that scientists expect global heating to be far more dangerous in the long run than Corona. 

3. Postgrowth is the most effective climate policy.

Corona temporarily achieves what decades of climate negotiations left to be desired. CO2 emissions in China, for example, have decreased by a quarter so far. Why? Because industry shuts down. Because people stay at home instead of traveling or consuming. Both scientists and policymakers know perfectly well that green growth, which seeks to decouple economic growth from its negative ecological impacts, does not work. Intergovernmental organizations such as the EEB, the EEA and the IPBES all agree on this point. Unfortunately however, this crucial insight has not yet reached politics and public debate. ‘Full growth ahead!’ seems to remain the consensus. Business lobbies are already lining up to demand Corona-subsidies, to prevent a recession. In the context of the climate crisis, however, stimulating further growth is like throwing wild Corona-parties while at the same time giving all party guests fancy vitamin pills. The latter could potentially slow down the infection rate. Overall, however, the strategy leads to disaster.

4. Global risks require a collective response.

Corona shows that individual measures can do little to encounter global health and environmental risks. Sure, it helps if individuals wash their hands. Yet, this won’t contain a pandemic – not if everyone has to keep on attending work or school. Global risks require collective, coordinated action. To that end, our common institutions – associations, companies and above all the state – must seek to ensure that everyone can and does move along. This applies to both Corona and the climate crisis. What good does it do if those who can afford it drive electric cars while all others remain dependent on their petrol-engined vehicles to commute to work? What good does it do if the green-minded live sustainably, while all others go on wasting our collectively remaining CO2 budget (which is small)? Unfortunately, we are not used to orienting our actions towards the common good. Our economic system demands that we conceive of ourselves as consumers and competitors – as homines economici. What Corona demonstrates now is that, in times of crisis, homines economici at best benefit the toilet paper industry.

5. Our vulnerability is growing and unevenly distributed. A UBI would help.

Corona has sharpened our sense of vulnerability – even in this rich and spoiled corner of the world. Christina Figueres, former UN Climate Chief, recently warned ‘Expect more disease outbreaks if we continue to deny, delude and delay on climate change’. In this context, it’s important to keep in mind that extreme events do not affect us equally. Corona poses different risks to youth than it does to the elderly. Quarantine measures have a different impact on the mid-sized sector and the self-employed than on multinationals and employees. Loss of income affects property owners differently than it affects tenants. A universal basic income (UBI) could alleviate these inequalities. In addition, it helps us to leave myths of green growth behind in order to finally initiate an effective postgrowth-oriented climate policy. In times of global risks, we need a politics that effectively averts avoidable harm, and equitably distributes the unavoidable.

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